Snowflake at the Kiln Theatre review ****

Snowflake

Kiln Theatre, 28th December 2019

Lucky family. Never know what Dad is going to serve up as their Christmas theatrical treat(s). And always careful to at least try to conceal their disappointment. Having banked the virtual certain success of Mischief Theatre’s Magic Goes Wrong (of which more to come), and comforted by the reviews from its original run in Oxford last year, the Tourist felt confident enough to take a punt on this. And BD had already enjoyed one Snowflake provocation in the form of the second half of the incomparable Stewart Lee’s new show.

Now IMHO Mike Bartlett is incapable of writing bad plays, or indeed screenplays. They may not always come off entirely, as here, but there will always be enough in terms of concept, narrative, character, text, idea, form, to get your teeth into. He doesn’t mind tugging a few strings, emotionally or in terms of argument, or taking a few liberties with construction. Which explains Snowflake’s, appeal, and, slight, downfall.

Andy (Elliot Levey, who has a habit of popping up in all manner of fine work, which, in some cases, is partly down to him) has hired a church hall in Oxfordshire on Christmas Eve. We soon lean that he is rehearsing for a possible meeting with his estranged daughter Maya (Ellen Robertson) who left home after the death of her mother, from whom Andy is still grieving. Mr Bartlett doesn’t make this too easy however devoting the whole first half, over 40 minutes, to a monologue in which Andy reveals his attempts to trace Maya and his own weaknesses and biases. This is not a man possessed of much in the way of self-awareness. Give or take your archetypal Boomer and, as such, far too reminiscent of dear Dad, sparking a lively family debate at the interval, largely between BD and the Tourist refereed by the SO and LD.

We knew the perspective would shift, but the catalyst, the arrival of straight-talking Gen Z’er Natalie, (Amber James, whose career I have been attentively following since the Guildhall, through the RSC), though not straight, was as unequivocal as I have come to expect from this writer. Natalie has come to collect crockery after and Xmas lunch and pretty soon the two are at loggerheads over political and social values, and, especially, identity. Both are typical of their “generation” but neither are cliches, and, on this, and given his gift for the gab, Mike Bartlett is able to hang some fine, credible and funny, dialogue and some spicey argument. And when Maya finally arrives MB, again with open heart, sets up the argument for private and public reconciliation of differences.

Easy enough to pick holes, which we did, but this was for me, if less for the others, a satisfying, shrewd and warming slice of theatre. Claire Lizzimore’s direction was well honed after the first run, rolling with the pronounced ebb and flow of the narrative, and Jeremy Herbert’s community hall set fit the Kiln (remember this was once Foresters Hall) to the manor born. And, whilst Ellen Robertson had a little less on her plate than her colleagues all three served up an acting feast. Ideal Christmas fare then.

Death in Venice at the Royal Opera House *****

Death in Venice

Royal Opera House, 3rd December 2019

Fresh from the superlative semi-staged version of Peter Grimes from Ed Gardner, the Bergen PO and assorted chums and straight into this. A top drawer new version of Death in Venice from David McVicar. I have fond memories of seeing Deborah Warner’s production of DIV at the ENO with, guess who, Edward Gardner on conducting duty, which also bewitched the SO, (who has also been persuaded by The Turn of the Screw and, though she may not know it, is going to be a fan of Britten opera).

Now I am partial to BB and his operas. As you can see from recent viewings documented hereabouts. They are up there with the best of British cultural expression, indeed the best from anywhere. But that doesn’t me they are all perfect or that creatives can’t fall down when tackling them. Paul Bunyan is a bit bonkers, (the recent ENO outing wisely went with the flow), the Rape of Lucretia has a pretentious and inappropriately Christian libretto from Ronald Duncan, you need to be in the right mood for the Church Parables, I have never seen Owen Wingrave live or in the TV original and Gloriana is, well, just a bit crap. Even the musically bullet-proof, Grimes, TTOTS, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, need sympathetic performers and directors. Billy Budd is always a tricky customer. The comedies/children’s operas are too generous to fail other than in the eyes and ears of the flinty-hearted.

Some say Death in Venice is also a trick(s)y opera though I have never really understood why .(Maybe it’s because it isn’t a simple, straight A to B, with obstacles, misogynistic love story). Here David McVicar got the Edwardian look and feel spot on. DIV is a set, costume and lighting designer’s wet dream and Vicki Mortimer and Paule Constable duly delivered to create exquisite, cinematic, vertical and horizontal tableaux across the 17 scenes with maximum efficiency and impact. The water of the lagoon ever present in the backdrop. With no f*cking around with interpretation. Visconti and Mann would be purring in their graves, (or suing for plagiarism), so precise was the realisation. Even the gondola looked real. And that was with two fellas pushing it. Lynne Page similarly brought just enough to the table with the choreography of the dance scenes. Realistic with just enough grace and artistry especially from our lovely, knowing teenage Tadzio (Leo Dixon) and his irate chum Jaschiu (Olly Bell).

But the real triumph was not having our van Aschenbach go too full-on, homo-erotic, pretentious, unhinged, tortured artist too early. He really is a bit of a ninnyhammer getting all lathered up with the young boys, the culture, the heat, the plague, the offuscazione, all those words, all that useless beauty, that Apollonian/Dionysian dialectic, all that bloody philosophising. (Honestly Gustav, don’t beat yourself up mate). He is though a clever cookie, in control mentally and physically until the lurgy properly strikes, and he can eloquently verbalise. At length. Immense length. In Myfanwy Piper’s appropriately mannered libretto. Brought to life by the beautiful voice of Mark Padmore. Who can act. Even to the back of the stalls.

This isn’t quite a one-man show. The support of Gerald Finley as Traveller/Fop/Gondolier/Manager/Barber/Player/Voice of Dionysius made this very special. Has there ever been a more inspired piece of operatic doubling (and not just in the service of cheap laughs and flimsy plotting) or a more talented singer/actor to pull it off? And, as if that wasn’t enough we get the sweet counter-tenor of Tim Mead interjecting as hunky tourist Apollo. And the never-ending stream of “extras” including the likes of Elizabeth McGorian as the Lady of the Pearls and, get this, Rebecca Evans as the Strawberry Seller.

But the ever present, tireless Mr Padmore is what made this special as we go deep inside von Aschenbach’s head. An operatic Hamlet. What is real and what is imagined? Messrs McVicar and Padmore don’t tell, giving the creepy Don’t Look Now Venice a wide berth, but do largely make sense of GvA’s meanderings and even make him seem human rather than the vessel for Thomas Mann’s symbolism and aestheticism. Not that it matters. BB’s music is so clever, haunting, sparse, ascetic, with the repetitions, motifs, and the gamelan shimmers, that it tells the story, conjures up place and inhabits character all by itself. Even at the end, like GvA consumed by his own mortality, BB was turning out perfection with that poignant passacaglia, (a link back to the Doric Quartet’s muscular performance of BB’s final quartet a couple of weeks previous), and Richard Farnes and the ROH orchestra know exactly what is required of them. This score then is the truly beautiful.

25 years since the ROH last staged DIV but I’d be surprised if it doesn’t come back soonest. So go see what I mean. And pay up for a decent perch as, by ROH standards, Britten comes cheap. All the toffs seemingly never tiring of OTT Italian C19 flim-flammery or worse still Wagnerian guff.

I see I have a couple more outings with Gustav van Aschenbach later in the year. Ivo van Hove and Ramsay Naar will be bringing ITA’s interpretation over to the Barbican in April with music from Nico Muhly and the great Greg Hicks will be serving up his solo turn at the Arcola in June. I expect they will be quite different.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Queens Theatre Hornchurch review ****

The Beauty Queen of Leenane

Queens Theatre, Hornchurch, 14th November 2019

From one side of London to the other. All on track until the very last gasp, so snuck in a few minutes late to this. A big thanks to the very helpful ushers at this friendly house. TBQOL isn’t starved of revivals but this was my first live viewing of Martin McDonagh’s first play, though somewhat nominally since the next two in the Leenane Trilogy, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West, as well as the first two of the Aran Islands trilogy, followed hot on its heels in the mid 90s. Hence my completist determination to see it.

And the fact that it had attracted some decent reviews at the run at Hull Truck, the co-producer. Whose veracity I can testify to. Designer Sara Perks has delivered a Connemara farmhouse, shared by Mag Folan (Maureen McCarthy) and daughter Maureen (Siobhan O’Kelly), required for all these plays, but with a twist. The walls are half-built, foretasting Maureen’s escape, though beyond the walls all is dark, in Jess Addinall’s moody lighting design. (There is an interview with young Ms Addinall, who started as a temporary technician at Hull Truck, which shines a light !! on her work and ambitions).

At its heart this is a simple story. 70 year old Mag is suffocating the 40 year old Maureen, who, after her two sisters married off, grudgingly tends to her every whim, tea, porridge, lumpy Complan. When she meets old schoolfriend Pato Dooley (Nicholas Boulton) at the farewell party of a visiting American uncle the chance to escape beckons, despite Mag’s interventions. The only other character is messenger Ray (Laurence Pybus), Pato’s younger brother, default setting bewildered, distracted by casual violence. This being MM the course of true love doesn’t run smoothly and things don’t end well.

It is brilliantly written, with exquisite dialogue, by turns comic and tragic, (my favourite, the crucial fire poker is casually described by Mag as “of sentimental value”), and a sturdy plot. That’s why it won a ton of awards when it first appeared in 1996, in Galway itself, before the Royal Court run and then transferring to Broadway in 1998. It is also, intertwined with the bitterness and regret, of all three characters, brimful of pathos, perhaps more so than the other Irish plays. Maggie McCarthy, slumped in her chair, allows us to see Mag’s vulnerability even as she passively-aggressively plots to keep Maureen in her place. Nicholas Boulton shows us the deep sadness at the core of Pato, happy neither in London, where he goes to work, and home in Leenane, and the excitement with which he imagines a new life with Maureen in Boston. And Siobhan O’Kelly is mesmerising as Maureen, whose past, and isolation, explains her awkward, exaggerated behaviours. Daughters turn into their mothers. Who’d have known.

Just a shame some berk in the audience seemed incapable of turning their phone off, twice, much to the chagrin of Ms O’Kelly. If you don’t know how your phone works (which I surmise was the issue here), ask someone younger (yep it was an early boomer), or, better sill, don’t bring it to the theatre. Whatever it is can wait. You are not that important.

My guess is that Hull Truck AD Mark Babych is a big fan of McDonagh’s. Mind you who isn’t. The SO and I still rate Hangmen as the best play we have seen in recent years, LD’s favourite was the Michael Grandage revival of The Lieutenant of Inishmore with Aidan Turner, and everyone I know who saw A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter, despite its flaws, hasn’t forgotten it in a hurry. Mr Babych has plainly lavished a great deal of care on this production and I am a little surprised that it hasn’t toured. Still, London audiences will have another chance to see the play at the Lyric Hammersmith later next year, in a production directed by LH AD Rachel O’Riordan (she kicked off her inaugural season with the superb version of A Doll’s House written by Tanika Gupta).

The Tourist recently saw another play centred on a dysfunctional mother-child relationship, Eugene O’Hare’s misfiring Sydney and the Old Girl at the Park. Chalk and cheese, This is how it should be done.

Sydney and the Old Girl at the Park Theatre review ***

Sydney and the Old Girl

Park Theatre, 1st November 2019

After the resounding success of Madame Rubinstein at the Park Theatre a couple of years ago it was a pretty easy sell to get BUD, KCK and the SO along to the same venue to see our favourite potty-mouthed, near-octogenarian National Treasure, Miriam Margoyles’s latest theatrical outing. SATOG however, whilst, when it got going, offering the twinkly eyed MM opportunities to deliver trademark laugh out loud waspish epithets, was a very different kettle of fish to the straight comedy of Madame R, as either of its lead characters might have said.

MM played the cantakerous Old Girl, Nell Stock, holed up in her shabby east End house, with 50 year old, live at home son Sydney, played by the much admired Mark Hadfield, who, I am ashamed to say, I didn’t initially recognise. Maybe that was because to say Sydney is peculiar would be a massive understatement. He is the archetypal oddball loner and he and Mum are locked into a textbook love-hate relationship. The setting smacks of Steptoe and Son and the dialogue that writer Eugene O’Hare employs to express the toxic dynamic hints at Pinter, or, in contemporary terms, maybe a palatable Enda Walsh . Sydney holds some fairly rum, if unconvincing, opinions, about women and foreigners, and when he does go out, nurses a pint in the local whilst pretending to be with friends. Nell simultaneously detests and relishes the hold she has over him.

Nell’s mobility is limited, spends most of her time in a wheelchair, and needs constant care. Cue Irish home help Marion Fee (Vivien Parry), all round good egg and saviour to the little Catholic orphans of London. After some variable, in terms of length and quality, set up scenes, we discover that Nell is looking to cut Sydney out of her will and deny him the inheritance of the house on which he is fixated.

Which is why I had anticipated an Ortonesque payback in the second half involving some artful double crossing between the three and the acerbic humour ramped up. I was wrong, Instead the guilt which binds Nell and Sydney together, hinted at earlier with Sydney’s fear of sirens, is given a full blown reveal complete with lighting (Tina MacHugh) and sound (Dyfan Jones) effects.

I assume that it was Mr O’Hare’s deliberate intention to shift tone through his play but it left the Tourist unable to settle on plot and character. Which is a shame because when MM and MH got going in the second half, before the overwrought ending, this was a fine black comedy. Vivien Parry had less success trying to persuade us of Marion’s ambivalence. Philip Breen’s direction gives the actors time and space to deliver the lines, as does the elaborate set of co-designers, Ruth Hall and Max Jones. But despite the championing of the director and cast the play never quite hits its stride. Nothing wrong with mixing comedy and tragedy, the lodestar of best dramatists in history. It’s just that without a thorough stir the ingredients can sometimes be half-baked and a bit too lumpy to satisfactorily digest.

P.S. Would be great if the next time MM takes to this, or another London stage, it would be in a reprise of her one woman show. Ideally as unexpurgated as possible. Or better still if the production of Lady In The Van that the good people of Melbourne, MM’s adopted home, enjoyed last year could find its way here.